- “Civil War Memory in the Civil Rights Movement and Contemporary Culture.”
The bloodiest war in American history, the Civil War ensured the survival of the union, ended chattel slavery, and accelerated technological development, territorial expansion, and economic concentration. Yet its promise of a new birth of freedom was soon betrayed by violence and disenfranchisement. Now, as the nation marks the Civil War Sesquicentennial, two important books consider the war’s legacy and memory.
In American Oracle, Blight revisits the Civil War Centennial commemoration, which both consistently reflected and studiously ignored the upheavals of the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1960s, the nation restaged the battles of a century earlier. A February 1961 ceremony to mark the founding of the Confederacy paraded directly past Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, whose young pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. had come to prominence five years [End Page 107] earlier during the Montgomery bus boycott. In April of that year, northern state commissions threatened to boycott the commemoration of the first shot fired at Fort Sumter because Charleston’s segregated Francis Marion Hotel would not accommodate the New Jersey delegation’s one black member, Madeline A. Williams. The dispute was only resolved after the reluctant intervention of President John F. Kennedy resulted in alternate lodging arrangements across the bay at the Charleston Navy Yard. A year later, Blight relates, “white Southerners and their commission members threatened not only to boycott” a ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial commemorating the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, “but also to secede from the national Centennial altogether” (18).1 No Civil War enthusiast in period costume could more faithfully reenact the battles of one hundred years prior than did the almost compulsive repetition of debates about federal authority, states’—rights, secession, and—above all, even if seldom acknowledged outright—race. “Civil rights intruded over and again on the Civil War” (13), Blight concludes, yet “the official Civil War Centennial could never find adequate, meaningful ways to balance Civil War remembrance with civil rights rebellion” (11).
No scholar knows the subtleties and sophistries of Civil War memory better than Blight, whose magisterial Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) remains the authoritative treatment of Civil War memory in American culture.2 In that work, Blight documents how narratives of reconciliation—of mutual valor and shared sacrifice—often worked hand-in-hand with white supremacist narratives to erase a narrative of black emancipation. A similar whitewashing colored the Civil War Centennial, which “became largely a series of public rituals and events mired in conservative, sometimes pro-Confederate, racially divisive, and Cold War impulses” (11). Such impulses issued in a commemoration characterized by crass commercialism, “by a consensual evasion of the story of Emancipation,” and by a commitment to “only the ends of reconciliation and patriotism” (11). It was, in other words, an “astonishing acquiescence to racism and blatant avoidance of the present” (19).
With the official observance marked by unintentional irony, unreflective nostalgia, and selective memory, it fell in large part to writers, those unofficial historians, to offer more complex, ambivalent acts of remembering the Civil War and more critical, searching analyses of its role in the national memory. Blight examines the works of four writers—Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin—who reflected fifty years ago on what Wilson referred to as “this absurd centennial.”3 “To various degrees,” Blight states, “each of these writers wrote with an awareness of the public dimensions of the Centennial commemoration, though all of them pursued their art for its own sake” (10). Rather than offering an overarching thesis that would unite all of these writers, Blight focuses on them “because they represent divergent backgrounds, genres, and points of view” (8). Read together, they offer a more complex version of Civil War memory than could ever be achieved by the official commemoration. Warren, Catton, and Wilson were not directly writing about [End Page...